Posted by Rampant Coyote on January 17, 2013
A few weeks ago, I joined my family for the board game Talisman. It’s the new version, released a couple of years ago, based on the classic 80′s board game that just so happens to be one of my wife’s favorites. My memories of the game were a bit less favorable. I remembered it being long and… really random. By random, I mean frustrating for me to play when the dice work against me.
So I played. We’d limited the time to play the game so it wasn’t quite so long. Everybody made some decent progress in the game, with some family members getting to the second tier of the game board pretty early on.
Me? I got turned into a toad three times in a row. The chance was pretty small, but apparently the dice were conspiring against me. I spent a half hour unable to do much but hop a single square. I went back to… was it the enchantress…? Already toadified, and thought, “Hey, I’m already a toad, so what have I got to lose? No way I’ll roll this a third time!” Right.
I left the game saying, “Yep, this is exactly how I remember this game.”
Strangely, I’ve never really felt compelled to play the lottery, either…
You’d think that with a few stories like this one (and I have a lot of ‘em), I’d be in Craig Stern’s camp, and be all “randomness in RPGs, BOO!” But no, I’m actually a fan, seeing it much more like Daniel Cook in his article, “Understanding Randomness in Terms of Mastery.” Particularly with modern RPGs, I really tend to go with systems that allow enough strategy to either minimize the role of luck of I’m at an advantage (which in normal RPGs tends to be the norm), or to actually maximize its role when I’m at a disadvantage. I try to see what I can do to get the numbers on my side (my side often meaning, “my team’s side” when I’m playing with others.) That skill – and being able to discern see through the random ‘noise’ as Daniel Cook explains it – are key items that make me feel like I’m in control of the game.
So if I’m so focused (usually) on marginalizing randomness, why do I not favor getting rid of it altogether?
In three words: Because it’s fun.
Likewise, the chance of failure makes even otherwise trivial actions more interesting. There may be a 92% chance of connecting, but that little 8% fail chance makes the eventual hit all that much sweeter.
But what about those days when the dice are cold, bad luck reigns, and things just turn against you even when you have every advantage in your corner?
In a good gaming system, IMO, you still have options. The option may be “run away to live and fight another day.” It’s why I’m not a fan of “critical failures” all that much – or older editions of D&D which had frequent “save or die” rolls (although many editions of the game made that merely an expensive, not necessarily game-ending, problem). This is one reason I’m still okay with the “hit point” mechanic, in spite of its lack of realism: It allows non-critical attrition to occur so you have a reasonable chance of executing a “plan B.” Or “C” or “D.”
In human-moderated RPGs, even a poor system can be compensated for by a good game master. Even without fudging the rules, they can do things like deliberately forcing mistakes on the part of the bad guys to allow the players an opening to turn things around or escape. Unfortunately, computer games generally don’t do that. But unless the games do the “permadeath” thing, there’s always the handy reloading the saved game option to compensate. But that’s a poor substitute for a good game system or a well-moderated one. Having to reload a saved game because of some randomly bad things happening is not fun. It feels arbitrary.
It just comes down to making sure that a little bit of bad luck doesn’t ruin the game. Major failure (the kind that requires a reload) shouldn’t feel arbitrary. This can be resolved by at least three ways:
#1 – The game system is forgiving enough with random chance that deviations are limited and have limited impact on the game. Most JRPGs (at least that I’ve played lately) are like this – misses and crits are rare, and damage is in an extremely predictable range. But the occasional misses and crits that give it some “spice.”
#2 – The game system grants the player the ability to ‘equalize’ bad luck (or setbacks) – like Frayed Knights‘ drama stars, or the ‘overdrive’ meter in (non-random!) fighting games which can fill up from (among other things) taking hits.
#3 – The game AI pulls the sort of dramatic intervention a human might in a dice-and-paper game, and tweaks AI skill or decision making to give an unlucky player an opening to recover from setbacks.
Chance can be a very fun element in games, but it can also suck the fun right out of a game if handled poorly, as I felt during the Talisman game. It really comes down to whether or not the players can feel like they are either the masters of the odds, or masters in spite of the odds. But they should not feel like they are at the mercy of the random number generator.
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